Monday, January 14, 2013
I am a runner. I’m not a particularly fast runner and certainly not an accomplished runner. But, I do run…. pretty much every day, whether I feel like it or not, in some really extreme heat, on the far southern edge of the Sahara Desert in the Far North of Cameroon. Most days I do between 6 and 7 miles and then every couple weeks I push it out to between 8 and 10. So, if running is what makes you a runner then I think I qualify…..even if….just barely. I’ve been running since I was dared to run an ultra-marathon back when I was 18, gutsy, and also dangerously stupid. I say that because at eighteen I was not a runner nor did I want to become one. In fact, the most I would ever run back then was the 100 yards from my barracks to the mess hall to keep from being stuck at the end of the line. But one evening while sitting in a steam room enjoying building up a sweat that took very little effort the guy in the seat next to me, whose name I don’t remember, dared me to run a 45 mile race called the Chad Ogden Memorial Run in Kodiak, Alaska. I was free that day so I said, “sure, why not” and the next day signed up for the race. Not really having a good picture in my mind of how far 45 miles was and with more than enough time to get ready (a whopping two weeks), I scheduled a couple training days before the big race. On the first scheduled day I mapped out a three mile course and started running. About 15 minutes and a mile and a half down the road I decided I had trained enough and probably shouldn’t tire myself out before the big race. Once race day arrived, I showed up at the starting line ready to go, along with a few other other runners….27 of us to be exact. (Ultra-marathons were not a big thing in those days especially in Alaska) I was excited about my prospects as I began sizing up my competition but that excitement passed very quickly after pretty much all the other runners passed me within the first 45 seconds of the race. But, even with a rough start and a really slow time (11 hours and 58 minutes), I finished in 13th place. Of course, part of the reason for my placing so well was because thirteen of the runners quit and I was able to limp across the finish line in front of my nearest competitor, an 11 year old boy who was tougher than nails. By the time I got across the finish line everyone had already gone home except for one race official who quickly handed me a “finishing trophy” and said "another hour and we'd have sent out the dogs”. That was it….no band, no hand clapping, whistle blowing crowd cheering for me, not even a T shirt. But it didn’t matter because I didn’t quit and that meant more to me than any of those things. On that day and in those hard, long, and really pretty tedious and slow 11 hours and 58 minutes of running I became a runner. And I’ve been running, off and on, ever since. But why do I run? Well, whereas, I do find enjoyment in running, it still comes back to what mattered most to me when I crossed the finish line almost 35 years ago….I finished! It wasn’t pretty. No one else cared except for the race official who finally got to go home but it did matter to me because when tempted to quit….when my body was begging me to quit….when the blisters on my feet and my blood chafed inner thighs were screaming at me to quit….when I really wanted to quit….I didn’t. I kept going until my race was finished and in the finishing experienced the sheer joy of not quitting. And that’s why I run and keep on running….for the sheer joy of not quitting. Real runners don’t quit and that’s what proves they are real runners. So what does this all have to do with anything anyway? I mean, is there any spiritual significance to any of this? I think so. I think it portrays and illustrates what so many Bible verses teach regarding the need for believers to persevere until the end and thus, not quit but finish their race. In the end it is their perseverance that finally proves they were true believers for only the true believer will persevere until the end. And in the persevering, in the not giving up, in the enduring until the end they experience the sheer joy that comes when you don’t quit. (Hebrews 12:1-3)
Friday, January 11, 2013
If I could wish, for you, one thing this New Year that would bolster your faith and bring vitality to your Christian experience it would be a needy life. Now, of course, you are wondering why I would wish you a needy life. I mean, would it not be better to wish you a fulfilled and completely needless life? No, I don’t think so and let me tell you why. Without needs we will not go far in the Christian life. Furthermore, without needs we cannot grow deep as believers. You see, our neediness is our impetus for spiritual growth and maturity. Our needs cause us to turn away from ourselves and our own resources to Christ and His resources. Our problems produce stress, which results in the neediness that drives us away from our miniscule personal resources to Christ as our infinite and all-powerful resource. Were it not for our needs, most of us would not search out, reach out and then appropriate by faith God’s promises. And if God’s promises are never appropriated we will not become partakers of God’s divine nature. This is what 2 Peter 1:4 teaches us. “For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, so that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust.” God’s plan for our spiritual growth primarily utilizes our problems, struggles, and challenges to promote within us the sense of need that pushes us to search the Word of God for the promises of God. Once these promises are found and we by faith grab ahold of them and appropriate them spiritual growth occurs and we find ourselves becoming more and more like Christ. God is not so much experienced through knowledge as much as He is through our experience of neediness. As J.N. Darby writes: “. . . necessity finds Him out. I doubt much if we have ever learned anything solidly except we have learnt it thus.” Therefore, perhaps it is not the most knowledgeable and articulate that make the greatest ambassadors for Christ—perhaps it is the believer who has experienced Christ and His power, comfort, riches, compassion, mercy, and grace through neediness that best represents Christ to a world in great need. The Apostle Paul was a very needy man. In fact one time he confessed that he was feeling so afflicted, so burdened, so needy that he “despaired even of life” (2 Corinthians 1:8). He further made the point that this sense of neediness was for the purpose of teaching him and those with him “not to trust in themselves but in God who raises the dead” (2 Cor. 1:9). In other words, Paul’s sense of neediness was for the purpose of teaching him to rely more heavily upon God rather than upon himself. God wanted Paul to experience a much greater resource and power than he had known or could know otherwise. Ultimately, this great experience of neediness which led to an even greater experience of God in his life was for us. That’s right—for us! For in summing up the why of his neediness Paul writes—“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our afflictions so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” (2 Cor. 1:3-4). So, Happy New Year and may 2013 be our neediest year ever.
Tuesday, January 8, 2013
Last Thursday afternoon I was getting hungry waiting for dinner so I grabbed a handful of peanuts, shoved them into my mouth, and started crunching vigorously. About three seconds into my munching, I chomped down on something a whole lot harder than any peanut I have ever encountered before. It was so hard, in fact, that it broke one of my molars. Turns out that one of those peanuts was not a peanut at all but actually a small brown stone that looked, to a 53 year old guy not wearing his glasses, like a peanut. Well what do you do in Africa when you have shattered the back end of one of your meat-chomping molars? You go to the dentist of course. So the next day Fidele and I made the mile walk along a dusty makeshift road to whom I was told was the best dentist in our neck of the woods. As a plus, he had also attended dental school……somewhere. Once there we walked into a small waiting room and waited about half an hour. Then it was show time. Fidele explained to the dentist why I was there as the dentist speaks a blend of Fulfulde and French while I barely get by with English. The dentist motioned for me to get in a chair and then he went to work. Tilting my head back as far as I thought it could go, he motioned for me to open my mouth and then he proceeded to take a small silver hand tool with a point and stuck it into the gaping hole in my broken tooth. Not being tied down or otherwise restrained Fidele must have thought the rapture was occurring and he was being left behind as I must have risen a good three feet out of that chair. Of course the dentist being a non-dispensational Muslim and not having read the “Left Behind” series thought no such thing and after stuffing me back in the chair uttered something that sounded a lot like “Allah have mercy”. All of a sudden realizing that Americans don’t quite have the same pain threshold as Africans the dentist yelled something in Fulfulde to his assistant who resembled, to me without my glasses, the black version of Osama Bin Laden. Hoping he was instructing him to load up a shot with Novocain before heading back into my mouth I was surprised and really concerned when the assistant took a strategic position next to me so as to better restrain me as the dentist made his next approach. With one arm holding my head in a sort of headlock and the other manipulating the silver tool, he once again stuck it smack dab in the middle of my broken tooth causing me more pain than I have felt since passing a kidney stone 14 months, 28 days, 7 hours and 25 minutes ago (But hey who’s counting?). Finally, the dentist decided a shot of pain killer might leave less bruising, cause less trauma, and be less exhausting than having to keep me in a headlock. Whew, I was happy for that until I saw him loading up the shot. You see, every dentist I have ever been to in the States used these really tiny short needles when administering Novocain but this baby had to have been two to three inches or more. Anyway, with his assistant getting ready to grab a hold of my legs and the dentist putting me into another headlock he proceeded to threaten me with the hypo making motions for me to open my mouth. Wondering if the reason the needle was so long was because he might just run it through my cheek I submitted and the rest is history. I didn’t feel a thing after that. In fact, that one shot worked so well I couldn’t feel my nose or see out of my left eye for the rest of the day. So what’s the moral to my story? Well, if you’re thinking it’s to avoid getting your dental work taken care of in Cameroon—it’s not. In fact, it’s been four days since my visit to the dentist and my tooth feels just fine. No, the moral is to watch out for counterfeits—whether they are rocks masquerading as peanuts, false teachers pretending to be preachers, or the fleeting, temporary, and fruitless pleasures of sin. The damage they will cause will be far greater than you ever thought possible and the pain experienced in dealing with and hopefully fixing the damage far greater, deeper, and possibly even more traumatic than you ever imagined.
Saturday, January 5, 2013
WHAT DO YOU VALUE MORE—A BUSY, FAST-PACED, WHIRLWIND, GRAB-THE-BULL-BY-THE-HORNS LIFESTYLE OR A QUIET, EASY-GOING, PRAYER-PACED, GET-A-HOLD-OF-GOD LIFESTYLE?????? In all honesty, we probably find that both of these kinds of lifestyles are ours depending upon where we are and what we are doing on any particular day. But is there a quality of life difference between the two? I think there is. Throughout God’s Word, we are told to busy ourselves with good works however the business of busyness is to be done in a quietness of spirit that reflects dependence upon God to accomplish the tasks set before us. Isaiah 30:15 addresses this in stating to the very busy people of Judah that “. . . in repentance and rest you will be saved, in quietness and trust is your strength—but you were not willing.” What weren’t they willing to do? First of all, they were unwilling to slow down, take a breath, and spend time reflecting upon their own relationship or lack of a relationship with God. Second, they were not willing to step on the brakes and put a stop to the flurry of activities their lives were becoming overwhelmed with. I think the reason for Judah’s problem with busyness is our problem. I also think we often stay busy for the same reasons they did. You see, they were unwilling to slow down because to slow down meant they would have time to think and then they would have to deal with their “issues”, whether those issues were with God or others. A lifestyle characterized by busyness and the constant “fluttering of wings” that must be involved in activity after activity and project upon project is often characteristic of a person who is afraid to allow time and space in their day to think because they have undealt with issues (read—sin) and/or guilt, fear, shame, insecurities, etc. that they are unwilling to face. The people of Judah would not slow down because they were unwilling to repent. Their hustle and bustle lifestyles in which they rushed about from place to place and activity to activity were indicators that they couldn’t stand the quietness of a life examined and in touch with God. I realize that there will be people reading this that will argue, “busyness and activity are my personality—it’s the way I’m wired”. I don’t doubt that there are people who by nature are more prone to a busy lifestyle than others. And I don’t think there is anything wrong with occupying your life with productive and meaningful activities that God is leading you and energizing you to accomplish. I consider myself a busy person in these terms. However, I also realize that apart from time spent in quiet dependence upon God in which I stop, take a breath, and apply the brakes so that I can relate to Him and to my own family, I could never accomplish the tasks God has placed before me. Years ago, I learned that the Bible does not teach that believers are to meet other people’s needs regardless of what they are. Yes, you read that right. I learned instead that we are to be busy engaging ourselves in meeting “pressing needs” (Titus 3:14). Everyone has needs. And if you believe it is your job to try and meet everyone’s needs you will live a frenzied, harried and really unproductive life for the Lord. Our responsibility is to meet “pressing” needs. Those are needs that are real. These kinds of needs as defined by the Greek word Paul uses in verse 14 have to do with the necessities of life rather than the comforts or conveniences of life. These are needs that if not met will radically affect a person’s ability to survive physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Now, to obey the Lord in this you must have and use great discernment in determining what is a pressing need and what is not. This, my friends, takes prayer and thought. And this requires a quiet heart. The most productive Christian is usually not the busiest one. This is a hard lesson to learn, especially for the likes of me. But it is a necessary one to learn. Jesus taught it often and even made a point of letting us know which is the better way when it comes to a blustery busy spirit that is always trying to be “busy” for the Lord and a calm quiet spirit that desires to be with the Lord. You know the story. Its found in Luke 10:38-42. The main characters were two women, Mary and Martha. While Martha fluttered, fumed, and fussed—Mary sat and listened. In assessing whose activity was most valuable Jesus put it this way: "Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; But only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the important thing, which shall not be taken away from her.” Let’s not get caught in the trap of unbridled busyness. Let’s be busy but busy doing the important thing, which will inevitably lead us to accomplish the right things.
Friday, January 4, 2013
The Bible makes the point that the fear of man is a snare. In other words our fear, or if you prefer our concern, over what others think about us can end up entrapping us. In the case of trying to deal effectively with and defeat our sin addictions, or again if you prefer sin habits or besetting sins, our fear of what others think about us will entrap us in our shame to the point that we will not pursue the only real and lasting means of freedom which, is confession or what we often think of as exposure. No one and I mean no one wants to be exposed for who they really know themselves to be and what they know themselves to have done or be doing. In fact, if I were a gambling man, I would be quite confident wagering a couple month’s salary that one of the biggest fears most Christians have is the fear of exposure—that being the fear of having their past as well as their present hidden thoughts, motives, attitudes, actions, words, and besetting sins made public for anyone and everyone to see. And if you don’t think we’re all that concerned about what others think about us—what’s the first thing we do when we find out someone has hacked our Facebook account and posted something morally questionable or ridiculously stupid in our name? Well, obviously, we get rid of the post ASAP and then write up an apology making sure we get the point across several times that “it wasn’t us” never-minding the fact that the only real thing bothering us about the post was that it had been attributed to us. All of us myself included, are very much concerned with how others perceive us, actually see us, or know about us and especially our failures. We basically don’t want others, especially our peers, to think less of the image of ourselves we project before them every day because if they do think less of us we are made to feel ashamed and this is not an enjoyable feeling for anyone. The problem with all this however, is that we are projecting an image of ourselves that is not real thus forcing us to live and perpetuate a lie all because we value the opinion of others more than we do the truth and the only opinion which really matters—God’s. This devaluation of God and over-evaluation of man leads us to run from the one thing that can free us from this trap of shame that keeps us from experiencing eventual freedom from our sin issues and that one thing is exposure in which, we expose ourselves before God and man for who we really are—sinners, what we are really struggling with—sin, and what we really need forgiveness for—our sin. The Bible puts it this way in Proverbs 28:13: “He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper, But he who confesses [exposes] and forsakes [repentance] them will find compassion.” In other words, what we call exposure God calls freedom.
Thursday, January 3, 2013
Philippians 1:6 is one of those favorite verses most of us as followers of Christ learned back in our spiritually formative years. Of course, as with many of our memory verses, we probably made the mistake of memorizing it out of context. It’s a great verse all by itself but, oh, so much better when taken in stride with the next verse. Just in case you’re in need of a reminder or you’re too comfortable to go get your Bible let me quote the verses for you here and please note the sections I highlighted. “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel." Taken alone, verse 6 is a wonderful statement of confidence that God will complete the work of spiritual transformation He began in us when we initially trusted in Christ. Taken with verse 7, we see that this spiritual progress is a work of grace as we are all partakers with Paul of grace. Thus, our spiritual progress or growth, if you will, is a work of grace. That is, it is not accomplished by our works or solid consistent performance but rather by God’s wondrous and free grace. Just as our physical growth as a child had nothing to do with us other than enjoying the food our becoming fully spiritually mature, that is our ongoing and futre conformity to the image of Christ, is not dependent upon us either. “For it is God Who is at work in you [us], both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13) and His good pleasure is our sanctification. Our Bible reading, prayers, ministry, and other spiritual disciplines are not ours primarily for the purpose of spiritual growth but rather for our spiritual understanding and enjoyment of God which He subsequentially uses to produce spiritual growth and maturity in us. The ramifications of these truths are staggering for those of us who, all the while embracing a works-free salvation, are struggling with a works-based sanctification mindset. Just as our salvation is by grace so is our sanctification. In other words our holiness is by grace not works. Does this mean that we have no part to play in our ongoing sanctification which again is nothing less than our becoming conformed to the image of Christ? No, we have a huge part to play—just not the part we most likely have been trying to play and feeling very frustrating about because we’re not playing it so well. Ours is not the responsibility of creating our spiritual growth—ours is the responsibility of working or living it out (Phil. 2:12). God is the One Who is at work in us who are partakers of His grace. Thus, not only is our sanctification guaranteed it is guaranteed on the basis of God’s work and performance not ours. This is essential to understand. Just as we are saved by a grace-based righteousness (Christ’s) we are sanctified by and for a grace-based righteousness as well. God will never become our debtor and thus to lose sight of our sanctification as well as our salvation both being the result of God’s grace rather than our works gives way to the false, terribly destructive, and discouraging view that God loves us because we obey Him. The truth of the matter is that because God loves us we desire to obey Him. Thus, our obedience, our holiness, our sanctification, and our spiritual transformation are all the result of God’s love for us and His grace toward us not vice versa. God will indeed finish the work He began in us and He will finish it well not because of our obedience or performance but because of His grace in spite of our lack of obedience and lackluster spiritual performance. We grow by grace or we don’t grow at all and grow we will because of His grace!
Tuesday, January 1, 2013
Since moving to the Grand North of Cameroon three months ago I have logged a little over 500 miles of running. My runs take me through small out of the way African villages where I am told some of the people have never seen a white man up close let alone seen one running through their village. Sometimes I find myself running through the city where everyone stops what they are doing to acknowledge my presence and encourage me by yelling “Courage” as I pass by. Much of the time my excursions take me out of the city along dry river beds on mostly deserted paths which, in all honesty is much more to my liking. Along these trails I often see African farmers smiling, sweating, and laughing as they work together on small plots of land, breaking up the hard, dry, and crusty ground with small hand tools. Close by are tiny mud brick houses with thatched roofs that are no bigger than a 4x8 tool shed back home. Outside the small but neat home are many children and one or two wives looking for firewood, cleaning the family pot for the next meal, preparing leaves, grass, and some spices for that meal, and simply enjoying each other’s company. Life is hard for families in much of Africa but especially so along these out of the way trails that connect village to village in a tapestry of community. Whereas times are hard for these people, times are not desperate. There’s always a smile, a greeting, an acknowledgement, an encouragement, a hand offered to help, and a willingness to stop what they’re doing to look at you and ask you who you are and why you’re here. This used to bother me. I’m not used to such interaction and I really have never cared to become more than anonymous. But, you can’t hold onto this kind of selfishness for long here for the simple reason that life is hard, yes even on Americans who have come to help. Tough times and dry ground, physical and spiritual do more than toughen us up—they tend to also soften us up so that we are able to recognize what most Africans have known and enjoyed all along—life lived together is more fun and valuable than a life lived alone. We really do need each other if for nothing else than to make the often tedious, sometimes hard, and once in awhile, just plain painful journey through life a little bit more fun, more doable, and far more interesting than living life on your own. The African trails I run never seem to end. They go on and on seemingly forever into this southern fringe of the largest desert on earth. And when you do see people on them they’re rarely if ever alone. For as they say here in Africa, “If you want to travel fast go alone. If you want to travel far take others with you.” Makes me wonder if I could have extended those 500 miles out some more if I had chosen to run with others rather than alone. Also gets me to thinking about how much further we could all be on our journey with Christ if we weren't so dead-set on walking alone. This just might make a good New Year’s Resolution! (Hebrews 10:24-25)
Pursuing the Glory of Christ as though He were the most important pursuit in all the world--Because He Is!
" Looking for the Blessed Hope and the appearing of The Glory of our Great God and Savior, Christ Jesus." Titus 2:13
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